Published: Fri Apr 13, 2007For many Americans, the significance of the attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, brought the concept of terrorism from a diaphanous haze of ambiguity to a very real threat with the potential to happen to anyone, at anytime and anywhere.
Tennessee Tech University history chairperson Jeff Roberts, for the first time, is teaching a course this semester that aims to further clarify the concept of terrorism by defining it, examining its beginnings and exploring historical and modern instances of it.
“This course is something that I’ve been formulating since Sept. 11. So far, I’ve really enjoyed getting these students to think so deeply about such a complicated topic,” he said. “It’s a topic that would benefit every citizen to consider because it’s something that’s going to be relevant to us for some time.”
Natalie Jackson, a senior history and psychology major who’s in the class, agreed, saying, “Terrorism is a hot topic in the political world we see today.”
But, as she and the other students are learning, it’s also a concept that can be quite difficult to define.
“The definition of terrorism in the short form is simply violence for the sake of a political goal — but then the question becomes how to distinguish terrorism from an act of warfare, insurgency or random criminal activity. It’s not always an easy answer,” Roberts said.
Jackson said coming into the course with an open mind and the flexibility to be persuaded has helped her better understand the concepts and instances of terrorism.
“A great quote that sums it up and which we use often in the course is that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” she said.
While it’s natural for those citizens or groups on the receiving end of violence to react by putting a negative stigma on the actions, she said, she’s learned to take a closer look at each instance before passing judgment or arriving at a conclusion.
“Actions of terrorism are tactics of absolute last resort, so by looking just a little bit into the history and the background of what drove [a certain group] to that point softens the glare on the whole situation,” she said. “It has definitely made me more open-minded and understanding of why people do what they do.”
The course began by exploring instances of terrorism in the ancient world, progressing to the French Revolution, where the word ‘terrorism’ was first coined, and will continue through modern periods, culminating with a study of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and their aftermath.
“There are limitless combinations that can be examined — from instances of domestic terrorism like the Oklahoma City attack and abortion clinic bombings in this country, to the situation in Northern Ireland to the Arab-Israeli dispute. Terrorism takes many forms, but its span is global,” Roberts said.
In a recent class meeting, he and his dozen students in one of two sections of the course discussed, for instance, the use of torture tactics by the French during the 1950s battle of Algiers.
“The Algerian Civil War is where modern Middle East terrorism began,” Roberts said. “There hasn’t been another modern war in which terrorism played so central a role as in Algeria.”
France’s first post-Napoleonic colony, Algeria was eventually declared a French province, and at the time the civil war broke out, French nationals made up 10 percent of the Algerian population.
When the French population discovered, however, that its military was using some of the same torture tactics in Algeria that the Nazis had employed a decade earlier against several nations including their own, morale for the campaign waned and Algeria eventually gained its independence.
That characteristic was a fact that led some students in Roberts’ class to draw parallels between that conflict and our country’s own involvement in Vietnam.
“I enjoy the cutting-edge topics these classes always seem to bring up. I’m very pleased with the quality of discussion both sections of this class have been able to achieve, and I’m already looking forward to reading their final papers,” Roberts said.
In addition to the section that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays and is geared specifically toward history majors, Roberts also teaches an interdisciplinary honors course about the same topic on Wednesday nights.
“I don’t know if I will teach this same course again, exactly as I’m teaching it this semester, but I can certainly imagine offering something in a similar vein in the future,” he said.